There’ll be dancing in them there streets…

Two months ago, if someone had asked me about the most unusual way my research had been used, my answer would probably have been rather unexciting – for use in an exhibition or an essay. If someone asked me today, my answer would be very different…

Over the last few months, a team of dedicated museum staff along with volunteers and members of different Leeds communities have been frantically preparing for a summer of ‘Dancing in the Street’ – the next special exhibition to arrive at Leeds City Museum from next month. It will be looking at carnivals and celebrations, focussing on four very different Leeds events – Otley Carnival (18th June), Bramley Carnival (17th July), Leeds Pride (7th August) and the Leeds West Indian Carnival (29th August). However, rather than simply collecting and curating souvenirs and memories, the team leading the exhibition had a dream – a dream where Leeds Museums and Galleries would not just spectate, but would participate in these events.
To start with it sounded easy – a group of people would make a few costumes and enjoy some fun (hopefully) in the sun. But, it quickly became clear that there was going to be a lot more to it. I wasn’t involved in the original planning of the exhibition, but have been to a fair few carnivals around Leeds, and was gently coaxed by Helen Langwick, Curator of Exhibitions at Leeds City Museum, into taking part. I dutifully attended the first information session, but with my dislike of dancing and wearing costumes, I really wanted to find a way to help behind the scenes. My opportunity came when Hughbon Condor, renowned carnival costume designer, told us about his vision for the costumes.

For those of you unfamiliar with carnival etiquette, there are showpiece costumes designed to wow the audience, and troupe costumes that are usually themed to match the big costumes. In our troupe there are going to be two main costumes. One is based around Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, and the objects and treasures in our collections. The other is the Leeds ‘His-tree’ – a tree made up of leaves using a selection of images to reflect the history of Leeds. The other members of the troupe are split into two different groups – the saplings who support the ‘His-tree’, and a group wearing historical costume to demonstrated the wide range of historical sites and objects our collections represent.

My job, on the surface, sounded easy – find pictures representing the history of Leeds. Once I began, it quickly dawned on me what an enormous task it was. Firstly, where do you start? As Assistant Curator of Leeds and Social History, I am used to looking for stories in the unlikely, often overlooked places. I didn’t want to miss anyone or anything out – but there are only so many leaves one carnival costume can support. I spent several afternoons trawling through a wealth of images – firstly from our own collections and then on the fantastic (Can I just add a massive thank you to the staff at Leeds Libraries for all their help).

But how on earth do you pick key events over such a long period that will give something for everyone?

In the end I started thinking about the events and people I already knew about. It was important to include modern events and images as well as those long since past so that everyone at the carnivals would see something familiar and that meant something to them. It must be noted that, at this stage, I still had little idea of what the finished costume would look like. This made it especially tricky to visualise which images would fit well. My next step was to speak to people I knew had been in Leeds for most, if not all of their lives, to see if they could think of anything I hadn’t. I then tried to fill in a few gaps as there were some great suggestions that we didn’t have the images to support. (Another thank you goes to the Leeds office of the West Yorkshire Archives Service).
Once I had compiled a rather long shortlist of images, it was out of my hands until they arrived printed and ready to turn into a ‘his-tree’. However, the rest of the troupe have been working extremely hard, giving up evenings and weekends to make the vision come alive since then. I went along to their penultimate workshop last Saturday, and was really impressed with the almost finished article. The residents of Clarence Dock had no idea what had hit them when the troupe were marching and dancing up and down the Discovery Centre car park in full costume – taking instruction from ‘Dancing Debbie’, charged with the task of coordinating everyone’s routine – with some typical West Indian Carnival music booming out from a stereo on the steps! There were still lots of bits and pieces to do, but it was the first time I could truly imagine how all my research would fit in and what it would look like.

If you fancy coming and having a look at the finished articles, you can either see the troupe taking part in the four carnivals over the summer – or when we’re not off ‘Dancing in the Street’, you can see them as part of the Special Exhibition at the City Museum running from 22nd July 2011 until January 8th 2012. The first carnival date os Otley this Saturday (June 18th 2011). Please come and support us and see for yourself what the ‘His-tree’ of Leeds has to say.

For more information visit our website – or come and find us at one of the carnivals!

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